The Best Study Spot in Beijing: Gulou

Written by Alexandra Bate, (College of William & Mary) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Beijing, Fall 2016

I woke up late one Saturday morning a few weeks ago anxious for the day ahead. Midterms were coming up and my to-do list was elongating by the hour. One freshly_brewed_craft_coffee_my_planner_and_part_of_the_chinese_constitution-_assignment loomed heavily in my planner: the Modern Chinese Politics essay. We’d been reading and discussing the Chinese constitution, and our teacher charged us with the task of comparing it with America’s constitution. I felt that I barely knew how to describe that in English, let alone in Chinese. The Chinese constitution itself was dense and confusing, so my friend Hannah and I decided to set aside an afternoon where we went over it, line by line, making sure we knew the difference between all the committees and chairmen and secretaries.

In our eyes, finding a good study spot was equally as important as preparing for the essay. Six weeks into our program, we were growing a little tired of the familiar faces and overpriced lattes of our university’s area. We decided to hop on the subway to Gulou, a neighborhood full of hutongs (alleys) and one of my favorite areas in Beijing.

We underestimated just how distracting a city as mind-bogglingly huge and vibrant as Beijing can be. Our 20 minute walk from the subway to the café became a 3 hour one as we got distracted by the vintage stores and delicious street food that line Gulou’s hutongs. We ended up having three lunches because we wanted to try so many different restaurants. What was going to be a day of studying morphed into a spontaneous adventure in which we kept saying “just one more stop, and then we’ll start studying!” I was dreading that day the way I would dread spending a day in the library at college in the States, but the adventure in Gulou forced me to realize something that is so embarrassingly obvious that it’s a little painful to write: I am not in college in the States right now.

a_rickshaw_driver_pensively_waiting_in_an_alley_near_our_favorite_coffee_Just today, our head teacher and bilingual assistant gathered all of us students together for a conversation about how our progress has been. The Language Pledge is hard, they said, and life in China is inherently challenging, but don’t forget why you decided to come to China; don’t what you wanted to accomplish. I came to Middlebury in China primarily for the academics. And Hannah and I had an incredibly successful study session in Gulou after all of our wandering was over. But if I am being honest with myself, if I just wanted a strong academic program, I could have gone anywhere. The day wandering in Gulou made me realize that there is a lot more to MiC than writing essays about the Chinese constitution and memorizing characters. Those aspects have been enormously rewarding, to be sure. But my most memorable experiences have come from using my Chinese in new places and learning more and more every day about the huge, wonderful city I’ve come to appreciate.